Oct. 13, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
BOCA RATON, Fla. – It was all about trust in Justin.
It was obvious Marshall football coach Doc Holliday has that. He has seen Justin Haig in the best of times and the worst of times … and this was going to be one of those.
In his virtual backyard, as one of 20 Floridians that Holliday took “back home” for a Conference USA game Saturday night, Haig finished the Thundering Herd’s rousing comeback against FAU with his right instep.
Haig’s 41-yard field goal as time expired – his second game-winner in two seasons – lifted Marshall to a 24-23 victory as the Herd erased a nine-point deficit to the Owls (2-5, 1-4) by scoring twice in the final seven minutes.
“I’d like to have gotten a little closer (than the 24, the line of scrimmage), but our issue was we had no timeouts,” Holliday said. “You’ve got to manage that clock at the end there. If you can’t spike it (to get) to fourth down there …
“It got to the point where we tried a couple of runs (for 2 yards and no gain) to get a little closer, but anytime you’re inside the 25, I feel pretty comfortable there. We were able to spike it on third down and run the clock down so, it was the last play of the game.
“And at that point we were going to win or lose it, and fortunately, we won it.”
It is the mark of a good football team that it can win under adverse conditions, on a day when not a whole lot goes straight – except maybe a field goal.
In a game in which the Herd (4-2, 2-0) was never comfortable until the final two seconds when Haig’s victory kick sailed through the pipes with plenty of lift to spare, his boot was a reminder of last season’s 45-yarder – his career long field goal – that provided Marshall a 44-41 home win over Houston in mid-November.
That one was the first last-seconds field goal to win for the Herd since September 1998, when Billy Malashevich’s 37-yarder at South Carolina provided a 24-21 triumph. This one was different. Those previous two broke ties. If Haig misses on the Florida grass on which he so loves to kick, this one breaks Herd hearts.
FAU coach Carl Pelini tried icing Haig with two timeouts. It didn’t work, but that had nothing to do with ice-melting 70-degree temperatures.
“I just focus on staying concentrated,” Haig said. “I went through my steps, stayed loose and that’s about it. Personally, it doesn’t bother me. It allows me to gather; I don’t have to rush. I can focus, stay loose and concentrate on the kick.”
For all of the Florida “homecoming” fervor surrounding the Herd, Haig’s name didn’t get much mention among the Catos, Shulers, Hoskinses, Tindals and Lovetts. But no Herd player on this Boca Raton night may have been in the neighborhood as much as Haig.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Haig, a 2010 Florida 1A all-state pick whose longest field goal in his kicking history was a 51-yarder for American Heritage High. “My high school is probably about 4 miles away. I went there my junior and senior years.
“I live about 30 minutes away from here (Delray Beach). It’s just a good feeling. I had about 25 people here watching, and it’s just a great team win.”
Haig has made 89 consecutive points after touchdowns as part of the Herd’s 39-game and 140 PAT streaks that rank in the top 10 nationally. But in Marshall’s triple-overtime loss at Virginia Tech on Sept. 21, his third-quarter wide-right miss from 41 yards and then a Hokies’ block on a 39-yard try were fresh at FAU.
“First of all, the (offensive) line did a great job,” Haig said of his game-winner at FAU. “Matt (Cincotta) had a great snap, Blake (Frohnapfel) had a great hold. People tend to overlook those things, but without those things, that kick’s not possible. So, it takes 11 people to do the job, and everybody did that today.
“As far as Virginia Tech, it doesn’t really affect me. It’s a new day … I try to take every kick with the same approach; you try to make it … It was rough, it really was rough (the experience at Tech). We had tons of plays that game that could have changed the outcome.
“That was the frustrating part of it. It wasn’t one play; it wasn’t the fourth quarter. There were tons of plays throughout that game that could have changed the game … I missed two field goals that didn’t go through.
“Since I’ve been kicking for a long time, I feel like if I do mess up, it’s just picking my eyes up and trying to see where the ball goes. So I sit there and tell myself, keep eyes down, and I’ll look up a second after and see where the ball is going.”
Holliday had some remembrances of that, too, after Haig’s success against the Owls.
“I was really proud of Haig, after what happened with him at Virginia Tech, to be able to step up there and make that field goal. It was huge. I wasn’t thinking about Virginia Tech at that point … I’ve got confidence in Haig, if it’s inside the 25, he’s going to make that kick, and he did.
“He’s a great kid, a tough kid, he’s a guy we talk about you’d crawl in a foxhole with. I’m just so happy for him after that adversity he had down in Blacksburg to come back and kick one to win the game for us.”
The Herd coach took the silent approach with Haig before the kick. Afterward, the two were hugging as the Herd headed for the locker room.
“I had my eyes closed,” Holliday said with a laugh when asked if he gave Haig any advice. “He’s a great kid; he deserves it for sure … We’ll be a lot better football team because of what happened out there today. I’m sure of that.”
But to even get to Haig’s chance to win it, the Herd had to go 88 yards in 12 plays to score with 6:47 left on a Rakeem Cato-to-Gator Hoskins 41-yard catch-and-run. That was Marshall’s longest drive (number of plays) of the season.
Then, the Herd defense stiffened and forced a punt, and a poised Cato – thanks to a sideline ballet-toe grab by Hoskins and a leaping 35-yard reception by Devon “MooMoo” Smith – took Marshall from its own 9 to close enough for Haig’s attempt.
“Those thoughts go through my head,” Haig said of the seemingly dire straits that faced the Herd until the final minutes. “I just try to smile, try to joke around on the sideline, but stay concentrated. You can’t sit there and walk around and stress yourself out.
“You’ve got to have fun; this is what we do; this is our job, go to school, play football.”
It wasn’t lost on Haig that two of the Herd’s biggest plays – on a day when fellow C-USA East contender East Carolina fell in triple OT at Tulane – were made by players who are 5 feet 8 (Haig) and 5-7 (Smith) … in perhaps somewhat generous roster listings.
“Yeah, people tend to look at people and judge them,” Haig said. “‘Look, he’s small, he doesn’t have a strong enough leg; he’s not a tough guy. It’s common in today’s society to do that, and I personally didn’t get recruited by FAU maybe because I’m short, I don’t know.”
That 45-yarder that beat Houston last November in Haig’s longest for the Herd. If his winning kick were any indication, he may be able to reach 50 as he did in high school.
His leg is getting saved because walk-on freshman Amoreto Curraj has taken over kickoff duties with great success – 25 touchbacks in six games. Haig kicked off 63 times last season.
Haig also has battled past back problems that plagued him in 2012 even as he hit 13-of-16 field goals and 60 PATs.
“Last year, my back was killing me,” the 21-year-old place-kicker said. “It was locked up. I had to take stuff to relax the muscles. It was hurting my range. But I feel great right now.”
That’s understandable. With one leg in the air, Haig was able to lift an entire football team to boundless joy.